All roads lead to Colombia for Ortiz

For most youngsters starting out in Colombian women’s football, the dream is to secure a move abroad, usually to the United States, to play in what is one of the world’s top women’s leagues. However, for Melissa Ortiz, a graduate of and former player at Florida’s Lynn University, the dream of playing for the Colombian national team has meant going in the opposite direction.

As one of the so-called Chicas Superpoderosas (Superpowered Girls) who have helped drive the development of the women’s game in Colombia, Ortiz has frequently taken the road less travelled. Her parents, both Colombians, met in New York and set up home in Florida. It was there that Melissa and her two siblings were born, although the family often returned to their homeland, sometimes for long periods.

As the youngest and only girl, she found herself playing football with her brothers from an early age. “Here in the USA, it’s very normal to play and it wasn’t hard to find a team, but when I told my relatives in Colombia, they were surprised. It was rare then for girls to play football and they didn’t even know we had a national women’s team,” she told, in perfect Spanish tinged with a slight American accent.

After being spotted by a Colombian scout, Ortiz was invited to train with the national youth team, which lead to her inclusion in the side that dazzled en-route to a fourth-place finish at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Germany 2011. And while she would also form part of the Cafetera side that graced the Olympics at London 2012, the striker missed out on the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ Germany 2011 after being omitted from the final squad list a week before the team travelled. “I was just 21 at the time and it was a huge blow, which is why this year I’m focusing 100 per cent on the national team.”

Indeed, Ortiz even quit her club side so as to be fully available for the Cafetera camps and matches. Between times, she organises her own fitness training – morning and evening – with a personal trainer at the gym, and also finds time to coach a group of 12- and 13-year-old girls.

For all that, she is not lacking experience in club football. After the London Olympics, the pacy and athletic forward spent a season with Icelandic club KR Reykjavik, an unusual destination where she nevertheless blossomed both personally and professionally. “It was the best experience of my life, simply unforgettable. I learned a great deal from its liberal culture and fell in love with its stunning landscapes.”

I was just 21 at the time and it was a huge blow, which is why this year I’m focusing 100 per cent on the national team.

In late 2013, Ortiz agreed to terms with Boston Breakers but would spend just four months at the National Women's Soccer League side. “It just didn’t work out,” she admitted. “Later I went with the national team to the Copa America, after which I received offers to play in England and France. However, I decided that my best move would be to focus on playing for the national team.”

More than just a player The 25-year-old strongly identifies with the playing style of compatriot Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, even if her real idol is former England midfielder Steven Gerrard. “When I was a kid, my brothers told me that to be a genuine football fan, I had to follow a club from the English Premier League. Seeing as I liked Gerrard, it had to be Liverpool,” laughed Ortiz, a natural right-footer who has nonetheless scored her best goals for Colombia with her left.

With football featuring so prominently in the Ortiz household, it is no surprise Melissa has embraced multiple aspects of the beautiful game. As well as being a professional player, she is also a keen fan and travelled to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ to see Los Cafeteros take on Côte d'Ivoire. “It was really something. When I heard our national anthem, I got goose bumps and shed a tear.”

Then there is her interest in the administrative side of the game. “I worked as a marketing assistant during the U-20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011. It was a fascinating experience because it let you see all the work that goes into staging an event of this magnitude,” said this holder of an International Business Studies degree and a Masters in Marketing. “Going there as a player is a lot less complicated,” she added.

It is precisely the latter role that Ortiz wants to fulfil at this year's Women’s World Cup in Canada. This time around, she is desperate not to miss out and is already dreaming of her side’s opening game in the Group F they share with England, France and Mexico. “The most special game will be the Mexico one, not just because it will be our first, but also as it will be a chance for revenge. In the Central American Games last November, we drew with them in the opening match and then lost 2-0 to them in the final. That’s why we’re even more determined .”

The player insisted Colombia have put no limits on their ambitions for Canada 2015, saying, “Our return flight is scheduled for after the Final. We have a new coaching staff with fresh ideas, while as players we’ve matured a great deal in terms of our style. We’re also better prepared physically and have grown a lot thanks to our experiences in this competition and abroad. In that way, the team is developing”

If the team are going from strength to strength, then so too is the support they are getting from the fans in their homeland. “Yes, you notice a different attitude now. When I started out, I used to get messages on Facebook and Twitter saying that, as a woman, I shouldn’t be playing. That surprised me greatly. Now, though, I get messages of support – including from men. They’re clearly proud of their Chicas Superpoderosas.” And with players as committed as Ortiz, it is not hard to see why.